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Ten years ago, whilst working at a company in Western Sydney, a nondescript delivery truck pulled up in the company?s despatch area whilst I was deep in discussion with a colleague. I took no real notice until the driver of the truck alighted and moved toward us. As a Rugby League fan of long standing I knew who he was immediately, it was difficult not to recognise him.
He was a large man, not tall but quite wide. His face and body had taken a beating over the years as was obvious to anyone who laid eyes on him. His ears were shaped more like the indelicate soap carvings of a five year old than they were of aural receptacles, his nose had seen better days and his hair had long since got up and left. More than likely his hair had thought better of being seen with those ears and that nose and decided to commit follicle suicide rather than be seen in such company.
From the neck down was little better, a torso that would look quite at home on a Grizzly attached to a pair of tree trunks, and dangling at the end of one tree trunk an ankle the size of a Grapefruit. He was a man of no great physical stature, but looks can be deceiving?.
I outstretched my hand, introducing myself as I did. He shook my hand and told me his name was Bob, I asked if I could call him ?Bear? and he laughed as he told me that was fine. I think he enjoyed being recognised.
Bob O?Reilly was his name and over the time I?ve been following Rugby League, the ?Bear?, as he was known, has always been my favourite player. A tough, no nonsense Front Rower, the Bear played top grade Rugby League from 1967 to 1982, his career highlights include representative honours in the early 70?s and a pivotal role in Parramatta?s first premiership win in 1981. An underrated player in my opinion, the Bear was the backbone of a Parramatta side that in the late ?60?s and early ?70?s struggled for legitimacy. A testament to his talent was that when Parramatta were at their lowest ebb, he was chosen to represent both N.S.W. and Australia. Later in his career he spent two seasons each at Easts and Penrith before returning home to Parramatta at the behest of Jack Gibson to help Parramatta take their first title. Recent induction into Parramatta?s Team of the Century was a fitting tribute to his career.
We talked for a minute or two about work and work colleagues, I thought at the time that he seemed happy enough with his lot and I?m sure he was. But I couldn?t help but think about the pampered stars of today in comparison to people like the Bear who had given their all on the Footy field as well as holding down a 40 hour a week job. Part of me wished that fully professional Rugby League could be retrospective and warriors like the Bear could be reimbursed the way that players are today, but that would take away from the memories. Best to leave it as is, the memories not sullied by talk of phone number sized contracts and breaking poaching rules etc. Things happened in those days that were akin to what happens these day but the game itself was the primary focus and eventually, most of the off field dramas just faded into the history books and out of most people?s minds. I hope the same happens for today?s fans.
Then we spoke about League briefly, I told him that I had been a Parramatta fan up until a few years ago when my allegiances changed to Wests due to a number of reasons. I mentioned a match against competition leaders Manly in ?73 at Cumberland in the pouring rain, when last placed Parramatta had beaten the arch enemy 10 ?0 against all the odds. He smiled at the memory. I didn?t tell him that he was my favourite player because in the environment we were in it would have sounded wrong. Looking back now, I really wish I?d told him. I didn?t even get an autograph and I left that job a week later.
I?m sure that our meeting was forgotten by him in a moment, but meeting The Bear and chatting to him was one of the highlights in my 30 years of following Rugby League.
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